Monday 8 April 2024

Into the Depths by Gill James, spring water

 Water-boatmen skim across the surface of this quiet lake. Waterlilies shimmer pearl-like in the sun. The tinkling of water tumbling in at one end and slipping out at the other mixes with the sounds of children playing. The scent of warm honeysuckle mingles with that of the roses.

The warmth makes me drowsy. I close my eyes and indulge my other senses.

And then I feel something. The lake is calling me. I open my eyes again and see nothing but its deep blackness. I am drawn into it and see only the dark and the slimy weeds that coat its bottom. The children's voices now grow fainter and I can only smell damp mustiness. I feel as if I am drowning. 

The gloom lifts and I am once again looking at the lake and the gardens.

But they are changed. Water no longer enters and leaves the lake. There are no waterlilies. The garden is less mature. No children play.

Then I see her. She is about my age but seems to be of a different era. Her hair is dark and pinned up somewhat severely. She wears a full-skirted ankle-length cotton dress, pale blue with lily of the valley printed all over. A grey shawl is around her shoulders. Her mouth is set in a thin line. Her eyes show evidence of much weeping. 

She paces backwards and forwards and wrings her hands. She mutters to herself and then calls softly "Tobias, where be you child? Do not hide from the mother that loves you."

She runs here and there, looking under bushes and among the trees.

I note she won't look at the lake.

Tobias. The name sounds familiar.

She turns suddenly to me.

"Pray, gentle lady," she says. "Have you seen him? Did he come this way? My son, Tobias. He is but three years old. And he will be afraid tonight if I don't find him before dark."

She goes to touch me and I shrink away. 

Then I remember. The little bronze statue in the pretty arbour just a few metres away from where we are standing. Will it be there though? This garden is so changed. I think I now understand that I've somehow come to another time in its history.

"I have seen a Tobias," I say.

"Where, where?" she asks. She is shaking my arm vigorously "Show me."

I'm not sure whether I'm doing the right thing but I go to where I know the little statue is in my world. She follows me eagerly.

There is a strange jolt and the garden changes again. Now there are waterlilies once more but not as many as before. One stream of water tinkles into the lake but none appears to leave it.

And the statue is there but gleaming as if newly delivered.

"Is that your Tobias?" I ask.

She rushes over to the statue and runs her fingers over the child's face.

"Oh that is indeed my Tobias," she says. "Thank you kind lady, you have been so helpful." Then she looks down to the inscription that is underneath it. "But pray you, can you tell me what these words say?"

I hadn't taken that much notice of the statue before but the gardener I'd talked to quite a bit had told me it was the statue of young master Tobias.

There is a lump in my mouth as I read it out to her.

"A memorial to young master Tobias Abercombie, drowned 18 July 1795, in the Fishbourne lake."

"So, I was right all along. He died in the lake. My poor, poor Tobias. But I am glad. I made the right decision. For now we can be together forever, my baby and I."

She kisses her fingers and lays them on the child's lips. And then she begins to fade. Seconds later it's as if she's never been here. 

Someone is shaking me. I can hear again the children and the tinkling of two sources of running water. The perfume of the honeysuckle and the roses is also back. 

"Are you all right madam? Should I fetch you a glass of water? I think the heat may have made you faint."

I recognise the voice of the friendly gardener.

I shake my head. "It's quite all night thank you. I think I dozed off. But can you tell me a little bit about the boy, Tobias. The one in the statue?"

"Oh yes indeed. A very sad story. He was the illegitimate son of the fifth Lord Rokeham. His mother was one of the dairy maids. But his lordship provided generously for her. She was a simple girl. One day the little boy escaped from her and she couldn't find him. Three days later he was found drowned in the lake. But before they found him she had disappeared as well. Six weeks later they also found her body in the water. The waterlilies have been planted to mark the spots where they were found. And the two streams have been added to make sure that the water circulates freely so if there are any more disasters any bodies will be found sooner." He stops speaking and clears his throat. "People say that she walks every 18th July, looking for her poor little son."

"Have you ever seen her?"

He shakes his head. "Oh it's just gossip. Now, you're sure you're feeling all right?"

I nod. "Anyway I must round up my own children and get them indoors for tea."

"That's all right, madam," he says. "Mrs Simmons has already called them and they're freshening up now. You can take your time. You're on holiday after all."

Yes we are. But we go home tomorrow. Today after all is the 18th of July.

"What was her name? The lady who drowned?"

"Abigail. Abigail Abercombie."

I just hope that Abigail Abercombie can now rest in peace. Now that she has found her Tobias. 

About the author 

 Gill James is published by The Red Telephone, Butterfly and Chapeltown. She edits CafeLit and writes for the online community news magazine: Talking About My Generation. She is a Lecturer in Creative Writing and has an MA in Writing for Children and PhD in Creative and Critical Writing. 

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